Cans

August 30, 2012

As the last of the light lingers on the rim
The suitors of the sunshine scuttle meekly to their chambers
To the dark through the dusk the day turns dim
And our colour inside also changes

A wonder creeps in through the cracks
On those resolved, unmoved to cower
Under threats of falling thermostats
To brave the cold unfolding hours

So picnic blankets turn to cloaks
Sweatshirt sleeves stretch into mittens
Pupils widen, night invokes
Its fading light and failing vision

Till little things, so long unmentioned
Surface gently and unbidden
With neither motive nor pretension
For we had never kept them hidden

In hushed-er tones we speak unburdened
With bottles clung to, glasses cuddled
Unrushed, alone, no songs, nor sermons
Around imagined fires huddled

Till parts of you you didn’t know of
Which dwelt in secret stores you hadn’t
Gotten round to letting go of
Raise their heads with spirits gladdened

Drinking in the dying light
Refusing blankly to retire
To brighter corners of the night
Where creature comforts can’t inspire

Sure, inside those windows there are bars and bolts and buttons
Where warm within their walls, they shelter sheathed in their shutters
While here your clumsy fingers tremble clinging to your glasses
Faces fade to traces, trading places, making passes

The grass beneath our feet turns wet in seeming seconds
As we grow longing of the past, a closer quarter beckons
The mystery of memory carves forests out of husks
No daylight can reflect the reflectiveness of dusk

Yes, here is where it happens, by the river, in the garden
Where empathy can flourish, where memories unburden
With crumpled cans around us, the silent moments dangle
No fostered fears nor worries with which we have to wrangle

Just barely chuckled laughter from the corners of our hearts
Though we shiver as we rise, we are warmer as we part
And fairly buckled after we will stumble to our beds
What was learnt will be forgotten as once we lay our heads

Vowels

June 5, 2012

“For how long?” I ask.
“Two weeks.”
“Come on, Harry, that’s too much. How about one week?”
“How about three weeks?”
“A week and a half?” I offer.
“Four,” he counters.

I was getting nowhere fast. I knew this game too well. I knew how it was played, where it was going, and who was going to lose out.  I decided to change tactic.

“Harry, please, let me use it. I’ll pay. How much is a text?”
“Nothing. They’re free.”
“Your texts are free and you still won’t let me use it!”
“Why should I?”

This was my brother through and through. If there was nothing in it for him, there was nothing in it. But he has a phone and I don’t. Desperately, I try appealing to his emotions. If he has any, that is.

“Come on, Harry. For me. For your little brother.”
“You can use it,” he replies.
“Thanks,” I say, relieved.
“If you do my washing-up for 4 weeks.”

He clearly doesn’t. Reluctantly, I agree to his terms.

*             *             *

My brother is not my favourite person in the world. I’m not his either.  He’s 15. Two and a half years older than me. Two and a half inches taller too. Our relationship consists mainly of bargaining. Pretty much as a rule; the longer I stand my ground, the less well-off I come. It’s just a question of at which point I wish to give in. I’ve learned a lot from this ritual of ours, so that these days I concede almost immediately. It’s easier in both the short and the long run.

We used to get on much better. We did lots of stuff together; kicking a football, or playing video games in one of his friends’ houses, or swimming in the pool near the mill outside town. He’d let me tag along if he was going off somewhere with his friends. I never said much, and wasn’t any good at sports, but he didn’t mind. I stuck close to him by choice, and he would never let me get too far off anyway.  But that was when we were younger. In the last couple of years, we’ve stopped hanging out so much. It began happening less and less when he started secondary. And when I started too, it stopped altogether.

I remember walking out the door with him on my first day in St Martin’s. Mam had given us lunches in plastic wrap, instead of in a lunchbox. I was growing up. No longer a child. My sandwiches were wrapped. Just like my dad’s were.

“Look out for your little brother at school.”
“MAM!”  I say, embarrassed.
“I will,” says Harry, as we close the front door behind us.

Secretly, it was good to hear though. I had been apprehensive about going to secondary.  So, as we walked down the hill to the stop, I was looking forward to being brothers again. It was exciting: to be entering his world, and not to be surrounded by a school full of kids. Still though, I did feel anxious, when I thought about starting the new school. Having my big brother with me meant a lot. It was reassuring.  As we were getting nearer to the church parking lot where the school bus picked us up, he began to speed up. So, so did I.

“Stay behind me!” he calls back at me.
“What? Why?”
“Just ‘cos,” he answers, speeding up even more.

I try to go faster too, but can barely keep up without breaking into a run. I look at him racing ahead of me, with his head down and hood up, and wonder why he is so angry with me. What had I said? What had I done?

Then, turning back at me, he adds, “Don’t stand near me at the bus stop either.”
“Ok. I won’t,” I agree. Both confused and saddened.
“Or at school. Or anywhere.”
“But…” I begin to whimper.
“You don’t know me, ok?”

I suppose I didn’t. Not right now anyway. I give up trying to keep up with him, and let the distance between us grow. I couldn’t understand why he was doing this. It felt like a small hole had appeared in my belly and had started growing. My lip began to quiver, and I fought back the tears. I wasn’t going to cry. I cried on my first day of primary, but I was a baby then. I couldn’t cry now. I bit down hard, and kept them in. I walked on and got to the stop and stood away from Harry. I glanced over at him for a moment. He was talking with his friends, and he wouldn’t even look at me. They were laughing together, pushing each other around. His anger had completely disappeared. As if by magic.

*             *             *

Harry lent me his phone for an hour in exchange for a month of doing his chores. I put these future consequences to the back of my mind, and felt a surge of excitement. I ran up to my room with it, and put in Mary Jo’s number, and selected ‘send message’. A blank screen appeared on the phone. I stared at it. For a very long time. Equally blank. What should I say? How should I say it? I wrote two lines. I deleted one of them. I wrote two more and deleted the first one I had written. I added another line, and then I deleted them all. This wasn’t as easy as it seemed.

I looked at my watch. I had already wasted fifteen minutes just staring at the thing.
‘Oh damn it’ I say to myself. Just write something.

‘Hi, Mary Jo. It’s Glasses. How are you?’

The ‘message sent’ icon appears. I stare at it anxiously. My heartbeat quickens. I hope she responds before my hour is… The phone bleeps: ‘1 new message’

‘hola muy bien wot u up 2?’ it reads.

I don’t quite get it. I know the words. The Spanish at least. Plus the word ‘up’. The rest takes a while for me to decipher.

‘Nothing much. Just starting my homework. You?’ I respond.
‘me 2 u wanna c 1 of my cartoons’
‘I’d love to. Did you make it on your DS?’
‘no drw wd my BFF snap & gif.’

I’m in over my head here. What does any of that mean!? Where are the vowels?

BFF:  Is that her Big BoyFriend? My heart sinks.
I hope not. Is a BFF is some new electronic device? Who knows?
snap: Is that her boyfriend’s nickname? My heart sinks further.
gif: Does that mean her girlfriend? My heart… I don’t know what it does. But it moves.

The phone bleeps again. ‘1 new message’. I press it. It reads ‘Play’. I press that too.

A cartoon appears, playing in a loop. There is a big rabbit playing basketball. With other baby bunnies. But there is no ball. The big one is using the babies as the balls. The little bunnies hop and bounce all over the place, as the big one tosses, dribbles, and slam dunks them around the screen.

‘That’s funny. You’re very talented.’
‘tnx do u draw stff 2’
‘I’d like to, but I’m absolutely rubbish. I can’t even draw the curtains.’

‘rotfwl its ez ill tch u’

Her rottweiler is ill!? She’ll touch me!? I am confused. I am excited. I am lost. My brother comes in and tells me that my hour was up ten minutes ago and I owe him another week of dishes. I plead with him to give me a minute longer. He agrees. For another month of the washing-up.

‘I have to go. This homework won’t do itself.’
‘lol c u @ school 2mrw’

I pass the phone back to Harry. He takes it from me grumpily and walks out of my room. I lie back on my bed and stare up at the hole in the ceiling. What does ‘lol’ mean? Is it ‘lots of love’? Was she sending me love? I’m not sure. Maybe it does. Maybe she loves me?

*             *             *

It means ‘laugh out loud’. Apparently everybody knows that. So, I guess she doesn’t love me. But I think she might like me. A bit anyway. We have become text-friends. Even if now I am now doing Harry’s dishes for the rest of my life. I don’t really care though. It’s still worth it. We have become real friends too: Mary Jo and I. We started to hang out at school, and spend our small break together, and chat to each other between classes in our home-room. She makes me feel relaxed and excited at the same time. For two weeks since, we’ve talked every school day. I’d never been able to talk to a girl as easily as I could with her. She made me laugh all the time. Sometimes intentionally. Sometimes unintentionally. Sometimes both. I got up in the morning and looked forward to school. Everything became brighter.

*             *             *

It was a Wednesday. Mam and dad were in the next room watching telly. I was at the kitchen table doing homework. My brother came home late. Almost ten o’clock. He had been at football practice. He walked in, went to the fridge, grabbed the juice, and poured himself a glass. I didn’t even look at him. He took a gulp and sat down beside me. I lifted my head from my schoolbooks.

“Do you like that girl you’ve been texting?” he asks.
“She’s ok.”
“I read some of the texts you guys sent.”
“Sorry.” I say, trying to concentrate on my homework. “I meant to delete them.”

We haven’t talked in a long while. My brother and I. I mean, an actual conversation. He pushes the glass around the table, and looks into it. I pretend to still be writing. I scribble in the margin.

“She rang me.”
“What!?” My doodling suddenly stopping.
“She rang me when I was coming back from training.”
“You mean she rang me!?”
“Whatever. Anyway, I answered.”
“Harry!” My heart begins its descent. That little hole reappears in my insides. I teeter near its brink.
“I didn’t know who it was! No name came up. So I answered.”

Why did I lie to her? And such a stupid lie too. I should have just told her that I didn’t own a phone. She wouldn’t have cared. She’s not that kind of girl. I know that now.

“So she knows it’s not my phone?” I ask anxiously.
“No. I lied to her.” He says. “I told her you were asleep.” This makes me feel a little more relaxed.
“What did she want?”
“She wanted help with her Spanish.”

I don’t do Spanish, but our mother is from Spain, so we were brought up speaking both languages.

“I should ring her,” I say. “Or do you think it’s too late?”
“There’s no need.”
“Why not?”
“I already helped her out.”
I look at him. There is a mischievousness in his face. The sound of the telly buzzes from the next room. We hear the cackle of the canned laughter. Our parents’ cackle quickly follows.

“You don’t like her, do you?” he asks.
“She’s alright.” I can feel the blushes running to my cheeks.
“Yeah, you do,” he says.
“No, I don’t.”

I try not to smile. Of course I like her. Harry must be really enjoying winding me up. But in a way, it was good to be talking to him. He used always tease me like this. I hated it, but at the same time I think I’d missed it too. Not the teasing exactly. But the interaction. We had become so distant.

“Really?” He asks.
“Honest.” I reply. My embarrassment showing.
“You really don’t like her?”
“NO!” I deny her for a third time.
“Good. Because I went round to hers to help with her Spanish, and we ended up kissing.”

I drop my pen, and stare at him in shock. He’s having me on. He must be. Or is he? His face is calm and serious. He does not smile. He is not joking. He was with her. My heart collapses in upon itself. My own brother! He’s kissed loads of girls. I haven’t. I haven’t kissed one. Why Mary Jo? Why did he have to kiss her? The only girl I feel anything for.

“Sorry, man. That’s life,” he adds, with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Cabrón!” I say, raising my voice. “You know I like her.”
“But you just said you didn’t.”
“But I do!”
“So why did you lie?”

I don’t know why I’d lied. Either to her, or to him. I just do. I feel stupid and angry. My brother sits across from me coolly. A cruel smirk forming on his face. That well inside me swells and swells. Rising from the pit of my stomach. Taking over. Till something inside me snaps. I stand up, kicking my chair back from under me, and throw my homework at his head. All my books. My pens. My notebooks. He deflects them to the floor with ease. I start to shout at him. Cursing and damning and swearing. As loudly as I can. I tell him I hate him and will never forgive him. I tell him I wish he was dead and that I never want to speak to him again. My parents burst in angrily and begin to shout at me too, but I storm out of the kitchen before they can give out, and I run upstairs to my room.

I slammed my bedroom door behind me and dove onto my bed. Everything I’d ever felt or hadn’t felt rose within my belly. I let it scream itself out of me; let it roar into the silence of the mattress. All the ‘aaaaaah’s, and ‘oooooow’s, and ‘uh uh huh’s. The million tears I’d fought back. I let them tear themselves out of me. And when I had finally finished, I turned and lay on my back, in despair. I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand and stared up at the hole in the ceiling, and for the briefest of moments, I allowed myself to believe that it was in fact the leaking pipe above me that had made my face so wet. Which made me feel better. But only very, very slightly.

Tumbleweeds

May 30, 2012

If only my mother had got me what I’d asked for for Christmas, what happened would never have happened. At least, it probably wouldn’t have. And maybe things with Mary Jo and me would have gone differently. Could have gone well. It wasn’t that my parents couldn’t afford it. It was just that my mother didn’t want me having one. Instead, I got a Playstation. I found it under the tree and unwrapped it. Why had she got me this? This useless console? This wasn’t what I’d asked for. I left the sitting room and went to her bedroom. She was already up, drying her hair by the dresser.

“MAM!” I call loudly. “MAM!”
She turns around and sees me at the door.
“¿Que es?” she asks, switching off the hairdryer. The sound drowning away.
“What’s this?” I ask dejectedly.
“Is what you asked for,” she says.
“It’s what I asked for two years ago!”
“Well, now you has one.”
“But, nobody uses these anymore, Mam.”
“Did you or did you not ask a Playstation from us?”
“I did, yeah. Two years ago. But I don’t want one now.”
“Now that you has one?”
“Yeah!”
“See,” she adds philosophically. “We always want what we can’t have.” As though this has somehow resolved the issue, absolving herself of any responsibility for my disappointment. She turns back around to the mirror, flicks the hairdryer back on, and returns to combing her hair. The noise fills the room. I stand in the doorway, and stare at her incredulously.

*    *    *

Mary Jo Sullivan is a girl in my class. In our home-room, she sits in the row to the left of mine, one seat back. My desk is right in the middle of the class. She has a big ball of fuzzy hair on her head. Like a tumbleweed.  Kind of greyish in colour. Tiny, dusty curls. Her desk is always cluttered with little balls of crumpled paper. They litter the ground around her feet too. A bit like tumbleweed as well. Blowing past. These little balls of scrap paper. They seem to be drawn towards her.

I’m a bit drawn to her too. I don’t know why, but I am. I like her. I think I do anyway. I mean, like, I like her. But I’m not sure if I like, like like her.  I just think she’s funny. She doesn’t even know she is, but she is.

Mary Jo is a scatterbrain, always wandering cluelessly around the corridors between classes looking for the right room. I suspect she may be incapable of reading a timetable, so often does she wander into the wrong class. She’s never on the right page. Literally and metaphorically. Sometimes she’s not even on the right book. Whenever a teacher asks her to read and she hasn’t a clue where we’re supposed to be, she goes bright red and giggles nervously. And even when everybody starts to laugh at her, she doesn’t seem to mind. Instead of being humiliated, like I know I would be, she seems to find it just as silly as everyone else does. ‘Mary, Mary, away with the fairies.’ Girls in school are always saying that to her. Though she never seems to mind this either. This big bright smile forms on her face when they say it. As though it amuses her too.

I like the way she looks.  Kind of all over the place. Her mismatched clothes. Her constantly undone shoelaces and uncontrollable hair.  She always looks like she’s just come off a rollercoaster. But still she’s pretty. She’s doesn’t have the shiny hairdos other girls do. Or the long painted nails. Or the eyeshadow or the earrings, or any of that stuff.  But she has these big wide eyes that make her seem in a constant state of surprise. Her skin is light with barely a freckle. And there are dimples in her cheeks even when she’s not smiling, though she usually is. These things; girls can’t buy.

*    *    *

“Ask her for her number.”
“How!?” I ask.
“Just go up and start a conversation, and then ask her.”
“I can’t do that!”
“Course you can. Just go up to her between classes and say hi.”

It seemed so easy the way Twenty Percent says it. It seemed the simplest thing in the world to him.  He means it too. I’ve seen him do it loads of times: just walk up to a girl and start chatting to her and then ask for her number. Not that he ever got a number from them, but that never seemed to put him off.  Twenty Percent’s 0% success rate with girls never discourages him or makes him re-think or question his approach. Luckily, this hasn’t become common knowledge, or he could end up with an even worse nickname than the one he already has. I’d say if he became known as Zero Percent, he’d start to miss what he is being called at the moment. He’d start missing the twenty percent he used to have.

“But I dunno what to say to her. How do I start a conversation?”
“Talk about her sketches or something like that.”
“But I don’t know anything about drawing.”
“So! Who does? Just pretend you do. ”

She’s always drawing.  That’s where all the scraps of paper come from. She crumples them up if she makes even a small mistake. She draws these odd pictures on her bag, and on her pencil case. She draws on all her books and copies.  She puts little characters in the corners of every page, so that when you flick the corners you can see little cartoons. Even in Art class, she can’t hold back from putting her little characters clambering all over her still lifes. No matter what Miss Simmons asks us to do, Mary Jo always goes and does something a bit different. Miss Simmons never gives out to her though. I think she encourages it. She says art is all about ‘expressing yourself’. But I don’t have anything to express.

“So, I just pretend I’m into drawing?”
“Yeah.”
“And then, what do I do?”
“Say you’ve something funny to text her, and ask for her number.”
“But I don’t.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just say you do.”

Mary Jo’s grades and mine are like the reverse of each other. Art is the one subject I do badly in, and the only one in which she does well. I suck at art. I’m easily the worst in class. I can’t even stay inside the lines in a colouring book.  I get A’s in all my other subjects though. Not because I’m smart. I’m not. I just have a really good memory. If I hear or read something once, I can remember it without any effort. But art isn’t about remembering things. It’s about something else. Something Mary Jo has: talent. If you were to judge us by our grades, you would think that I am the gifted student, and Mary Jo is the dunce, but I think the opposite is true. She is the one to watch. She is the one with the gift.

*    *    *

The next day during the eleven o’clock break I saw her in the yard. In her mismatched clothes. With a new purple denim cap on her head. Though it wasn’t really on her head. More like it was on her hair. Just balancing there on top of her curls. She was on her own, leaning against the wall outside the first year building, playing her Nintendo DS.  She was engrossed in her game; with that childish smile on her face.  I watched her from outside the canteen, trying to pluck up the courage to go and speak to her. I could see her nibbling on her lower lip with her upper teeth. I look at my watch. 11:15 it reads. Five minutes to next class. ‘It’s now or never’ I say to myself. I take a deep breath, and begin to walk across the yard. She gets closer and closer. I haven’t even thought about what I’ll say to her. I hope something comes to me when I get there. I really do. But, quicker than I’d imagined, there I am. Standing beside her.

“Hi,” I venture.
“Hey,” she says, without looking up.
“I like your cap”
“Thanks,” she says.

There’s a short silence, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She is too wrapped up in her DS. This eases my nerves somehow.

“What are you playing?” I ask.
“Picross 3D.”
“What’s your score?”
“There’s no score in Picross,” she replies matter-of-fact-ly.
“No?”
“No.” She still hasn’t even looked at me.
“So, like, how do you play then?” I wonder if she even knows it’s me she’s talking to.
“You kind of make pictures out of blocks and stuff,” she explains.
“Oh, ok.”

Silence.

“So, you like drawing then?”
“Yep.”

More silence.

“I’ve seen your cartoons in your copybooks. They’re pretty good.”
“Thanks.” She just continues poking the screen with her DS pen. She seems happily disinterested. I look at my watch. 11:18. Two minutes till class.

“I’d like to see some more of your stuff some time.”

Again: silence. I wait for the tumbleweed to blow past.

I stand there awkwardly trying to think of how to subtly ask for her number, and can’t come up with either a plausible reason or the courage to ask her with.  But just as I’m about to give up, say bye, and walk off; the unexpected magically happens. She taps one last time on the screen, closes her DS, slips the stylus into its back, and says, “Sure.”  Then reaching into her bag, pulls out her phone, and asks, “What’s your number?”
“What!” I say, unable to believe what she’s asked.
“What’s your number? I have a few animations I’ve made saved onto my phone. I’ll send you some of them.”

She’s asking for my number! This; I had definitely not expected. I’m completely taken aback, and am so elated that for the briefest of moments I manage to forget what my mam didn’t buy me for Christmas. I forget that I don’t have a mobile phone. I don’t have a number to give her. Why wouldn’t my mother buy one for me? It’s the only thing I asked for. I must be the only kid in school who doesn’t have one. My folks have no clue how embarrassing this is.

“Eh, I don’t have my phone with me,” I say. “My mam won’t let me take it to school.”
“Right,” she says, unfazed. “So, what’s your number anyway?”

Should I tell her the truth or not? I probably should. She probably won’t care. Maybe I’ll just tell her that I don’t have one. Or will she think that my family is really poor? If I don’t have a phone? And I suppose, I’ve already told her one lie, so… No, I’ll just tell her the truth. It’s easier if I tell her the truth.

“I forget it,” I lie.
“You forget your own telephone number!?” That big bright smile breaking across her face.
“I know,” I say.” I’m an idiot.” And I begin to laugh too. “It’s a new phone,” I add. “I just got it. Still can’t remember the number.”
“And I thought you remembered everything,” she says teasingly.
I am stunned that she knows this about me. I am stunned that she knows anything about me. But I am still stuck in this sticky situation. Small lies begetting bigger lies.

“I don’t ring myself a lot.” I try to joke.
And even more unbelievably, she finds this funny. She starts to laugh that cute, nasal chuckle of hers.
“Nor do I,” she chips in, which tickles us both. And here we are, standing here talking, and laughing, and looking straight at each other, and I can’t believe how easy it all is. This is great. I realise I do like her. I like, like like her. Like, I like her a lot.

“How about you give me your number?” I say. “Then, I’ll text you after school.” She says ok and pulls out a pen and writes her number on my hand. She’s actually touching my hand! Holding it! She glances up at me with those huge eyes of hers as she does so. Her dimples deepen as she smiles; whether at me or to herself I do not know. She finishes and puts the pen back inside her bag. I look at the number on my hand, and instantly memorize it. We share a look, and just then the bell goes.

“What have you got now?” I ask.
“Spanish,” she says. “You?”
“French.”
“Right. See you later,” she chirps as she turns to go. “Text me.”
“I will.” I say.

‘If I can think of a way,’ I say to myself. I remain there for a moment longer, watching her. Away she goes, meandering towards her next lesson. Gentle and carefree.  She is so lovely. And for the first time I realise how much she may mean to me. I stay there, where I am, my heart and eyes following her as she goes. Heading off towards her class; in what I’m pretty sure is the wrong direction.

Reins

April 30, 2012

When it rains here, it rains. It falls heavy and straight down, and does not apologise for the inconvenience. Rain falls here like it has a right to. It comes and goes on time. Just like the trains.

I am waiting for a colleague in the station of a small university town. He is not late. It’s just that I am very early. From the dry safety of the station I stand watching hundreds of umbrellas pouring out into the street. Most people exiting the station are students. Of their umbrellas, there are full yellows, bold reds and bright oranges. Some are decorated with flowers or patterns. I stand waiting, and watch this vibrant multi-coloured stream flow away towards its campus and think about colours.

Were I to be several stops away at this time of the morning, at Ikebukuro or Shinjuku, it would be a different sort of sight I would see. The umbrellas there are either black or transparent, and amalgamate into grey. A river of grey, moving in straight lines. More of a canal, whose movements have been dictated by the will of man. It does not curve. It does not waste time. Those streets, at this hour, look like they have been clicked and dragged over.

My colleague and I will be doing student orientation. Students attend lectures on career guidance on their first day of first year. They are often very unsure of themselves and very nervous. Understandably so. Even those who display an outwardly appearance of extroversion can be painfully, sometimes debilitatingly, shy.  Character is much harder to read here. Another train stops, and lets off its passengers. They pass in a flurry, giggling and chattering, exit the gate, and open their umbrellas. They are mishmashes of colours and fashions: the students. They have waves and curls and highlights in their hair. Some could belong to the cyber-punk generation of the future, while others would not be out of place in the nineteenth century. I have seen students wearing the oddest things. They pass without pretension and are un-laughed-at. A few young people I have seen on campuses come to mind: a male student in high-heels, a student who dons a large bright-red dickie-bow as his everyday attire, a girl who dresses like a rabbit.  These are not cos-play girls nor emo kids. Just normal guys and girls with different tastes in clothes. One student I know regularly wears such odd clothes that on Halloween, no one was certain whether he had dressed up or not. In Japan, you are allowed to be as different as you like. At least for a while. Till they start to rein you in.

When students arrive at university, they look colourful and are endlessly varied. When they leave, they are all dressed in black. Black suits with black shoes and straight black hair. A large part of third and fourth years are taken up with job-hunting seminars, interviews, and company open days. When looking for work, no variation is acceptable. No marks of individualism are permitted.

My colleague arrives. We follow the stream towards the campus. The rain stops. Today we are in Gakushuin University. This is where the emperors of Japan are educated. Our presentations are in a building which used to be the dormitory for the royal students. The dorms are classrooms now. It is still a working university, but accepts regular students as well as the elite these days.  I wonder which room Emperor Hirohito stayed in while he studied here. He had a keen interest in marine biology. I imagine him sitting here at night studying sketches of skeletons and illustrated jellyfish, unconcerned with what the future might expect of him. Unaware of whom he would become, or of what that might mean.

I was born in the 55th year of the Showa reign. Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and the calendar began again at year one of the present reign. Emperors have no surname. At birth they receive one name. When they are crowned, it is discarded and they take a new one. As a mark of respect, however, Japanese people never refer to the emperor by name, but simply refer to them as ‘Tennou’, meaning ‘heavenly sovereign’. In death, they are renamed once more, after their era. So, the Showa Emperor of Japan was formerly Emperor Hirohito, who was formerly Prince Michinomiya. In a similar way, most Japanese are born Shinto, marry in Christian churches, and die Buddhist, and nobody considers this to be strange. Nor is it considered conflicting that when asked, almost all Japanese answer that they do not believe in any god. Nor is this seen to be at odds with the fact that temples and shrines are sacred places, revered by the Japanese, at which people regularly attend, pray, and give offerings.

Emperor Hirohito was born a god but died a man. His expansionist dreams undid his godliness. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to renounce his divinity and perhaps concede that man has more destructive power than any god. The name Showa, which was conferred on Emperor Hirohito after his death, means “enlightened peace”. The Second World War brought about the deaths of one hundred thousand Americans, roughly three million Japanese people, and the deaths and brutal torture of ten to twenty million Chinese. No charges of war crimes were ever brought against him. They say he was misled into imperialism. That his generals deceived him. That he was kept in ignorance. The militarists held the power, not him. But he was not so completely blinded or blameless. He was not so unaware. Nor so passive or so pacifist. His pacifism was inspired more by looming defeat than by compassion. But we were offered a version of history that was more palatable, and it was readily accepted. General McArthur, who oversaw the rebuilding of post-war Japan, felt the country would be more easily run if the emperor remained as its figurehead. So blame was removed from him. The responsibility for his part in the war and its atrocities was taken away, and re-written. The reins of history are held tightly here too. The unseemly truth of the past is kept at arm’s length. Tamed and subordinate.

I am shown around this old dormitory building by my colleague. He points out old features which, though no longer used, still remain. Between our recruitment presentations I look out the windows of a second floor corridor. There is a kindergarten next door. I can see the children playing in the yard. The emperors also attended there. The kids are being taken through their exercises. They jump and squat and stretch and march. They are bursting with energy. By the partition is a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. Cherry blossoms inspire awe in Japan. What astonishes me is just how astonished the Japanese are by these sakura. They watch them appear as though they had never seen them before, and gasp in wonder as if they had not expected this to happen. Apparently it is their transience which makes them sublime. They bloom. They explode into life; pink and white. They are beautiful. The nation rejoices. Then, almost as quickly, the wind strips the trees of them. They float down and land on the ground and in the rivers, and soon they are gone. They are fleeting. Therein lies their beauty.

The first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, was a descendant of the goddess of the sun on his father’s side and the god of the sea on his mother’s. Those gods also had lineage. After the god Izanagi had returned from the underworld, he washed himself in the sea and shook them into existence off himself. Izanagi and the goddess Izanami had fallen in love and given birth to the eight main islands of ancient Japan. She died giving birth to yet another child. Heartbroken, Izanagi went down into the shadowy land of the dead to find her, but she had eaten of their food and now belonged to that world. Izanagi longed for her to return with him, but when he realised her flesh was rotten and was infested with maggots, he turned and fled. Izanami gave chase and was joined by the foul creatures of the underworld. Izanagi ran, casting aside anything he could think of in an effort to distract them and slow them down. He threw off his headdress, which transformed into grapes when it touched the ground. Out of his comb; bamboo. His hideous pursuers fell upon and devoured these. He urinated against a tree, producing a great river. This delayed them even more. Eventually he reached the entrance of the dark land of the dead and locked them all in with a great boulder. But Izanami, in her rage, swore vengeance on her former husband, and vowed to kill a thousand people a day as punishment for his abandoning of her. This is how Death was brought into existence. Even the gods are mortal.

When our class presentations are finally finished, my colleague and I pack up our stuff, and take our respective trains. I take the Yamanote and Chiyoda lines to Kita-Senju and change to the Isesaki line and head home. I study the other passengers.  They look at their phones. Their iPods. Their gaming devices. They read their books. Their newspapers. Their comics. Or they sleep. Nobody looks at anyone else.  It is considered untoward.

I watch the people across from me in the carriage and imagine their lives. There is a salaryman opposite me with shopping bags of designer products. He is balding and exhausted. His heavy eyes fall out from his head and are too tired to close. He wears a black suit into which he seems to have shrunk. I imagine this same man working as a fry cook, in a hot steaming kitchen, in a stained apron, with a smile on his face. But it would not do for him to be a cook. So he is an ill-suited businessman. Always falling short of what is needed. Passed over for promotion. He endures his role for his family, his in-laws, his pride. He perseveres to save face. He is unhappy, disappointed, and disappointing.

I look down the row at the passengers sitting beside him. Read, sleep, phone, phone, sleep, read, sleep, phone, read. All eyes are averted. Trains in Japan are strangely private places. People lock themselves into their own worlds. These are the only three activities which take place here. Speaking on the train is frowned upon. To speak on your phone is considered a crime. Everyone pretends to be alone. It is part of their national sense of community. Their solidarity. Even in carriages where passengers are crushed in so tightly that you can lift both your feet off the ground and not fall down, people remain locked away in their own personal bubbles as though nothing were happening. Their faces give away no sign of discomfort or annoyance.

Some characters in Noh theatre are identified by their masks. Those of the gods are fearsome and monstrous. Human masks are more subtle in their design. In full light, the masks appear to betray no emotion. Just a blank motionless stare. But they were crafted so that an actor can hold his head at different angles, and the lighting will portray a range of emotions – fear, anticipation, joy, sadness – depending on how the light reflects upon the masks. People here are like that too. Their expressions may not change, yet neither can they be concealed. They are revealed by the changes in the light.

At the end of the row by the door sits a businesswoman. She is petite, demure, and beautiful. Her suit: jet black. She is perfectly symmetrical, reading two books. One in each hand, both resting on her briefcase. She reads them at the same time. A page each. Changing from one to the other in rhythm. Beside her sits a girl who hides away in herself. She does not wish to be seen. Her feet point inwards. Her elbows; drawn across her. Her iPhone; held to her chin, headphones drowning out the world. She longs to disappear. She keeps her head down, but she is not sleeping. Merely avoiding being awake.

Kabuki theatre does not use masks, but the actors are heavily made up with white powdered faces and elaborate dress. The stagehands, who move props around in the background and change the scenery during the play, are known as kuroko. They dress in black robes with their faces hidden. The colour of their clothes signifies that they are not to be considered part of the play. It is their skill to be noticed as little as possible. Ninjas, too, are renowned for their ability to evade detection. We imagine them also as being dressed in black. They were not. They were covert assassins and needed to be inconspicuous, so as not to draw attention to themselves. They wore whatever the people around their intended victim were wearing in order to get as close as possible without being noticed. Occasionally in kabuki theatre, a stagehand would jump out from the background and murder one of the characters in the play. The twist in the tale being that the ninja had disguised himself as a kukoro and leapt out of the non-play into the action. Our modern image of the ninja dressed all in black, their faces concealed, comes from this. Their outfits are those of kabuki stagehands.

I reach my stop and get off. The rain has started again. I have no umbrella of any colour. We emerge from the station into the darkening evening and disperse. Japan is a strange place. It disguises itself with itself.  Beneath the make-up, there is pain and pride and passion. Within the contours of the masks lie hidden expressions. There are ninjas lurking in the shadows, waiting to be written. Appearance is everything and it is nothing. Truth and untruth exist simultaneously. Belief and unbelief blur into each other. Fact and fiction, history and myth, the real and the unreal: they co-exist here without contradiction. All the colours run and it is impossible to find the line where one becomes the other. Everything is permeable here. Everything is fleeting.

Words

March 30, 2012

Out of growls of vowels we formed our tongue
From howling sounds of hunger from the mouthings of our young
To shouts of warning, wails of mourning, rousing battle cries
The pity-seeking whimpers, the pained and pleasured sighs

From these instinctive urges our early words will form
Till language now emerges like Babel through the storm
Forefathers’ words can still be heard long after they depart
So mystical and mythical, their words outlive their heart

We scratched in stone our stories, we etched our truths in bark
From ink and quill to digital, we speak across the dark
Every generation’s lexis finds its own new webs to weave
Is it language that reflects us, does it shape how we perceive?

All the prose and poems on pages we wrote never to be read
If words aren’t shared with others, does it matter what we said?
Which came first, our thoughts or words, of what does thought consist?
Do they mutually depend upon each other to exist?

Do the verbose endure emotions the ineloquent can’t reach?
Are all our feelings raw, or do refined ones find a niche?
Is passion not as poignant when less poetically felt?
Does wot’s xprest in ur last txt mean less than wot u spelt?

Lo, archaic phrasings, doth your ancientness imbue
Our lines of love with longing which without would not be true?
And does the metre matter to the meaning of the art?
Is the beat set to repeat the pitter-patter of the heart?

Is there a rhyme or reason for the rhythms we have wrung?
Have you heard a music hidden in the rollings of the tongue?
Would syllables sing so sweetly if not for personification?
Do our hollow hearts hurt harder when we hear alliteration?

Meta-language, meta-physics, met a girl that I adore
She is calming like the ocean, what on earth’s this meta for?
She is cooling, she is gentle; yet, beware her mighty roar
I could see her sea consume me, how her waves enslave my shore

Words, my friends, you leave me, when I could never need you more
Are my fallacies pathetic, is my assonance unsure?
Are words just shields for cowards, just for books left on the shelf?
Is it rhetorically I’m asking? Do I even know myself?

Coins

February 24, 2012

Coins sat in the bar by the seat where he always sat. Not in it, but by it. Staring into the surf of his drink. Two twenty-something girls had occupied his usual corner. A blonde and a brunette. Dressed in primary colours. They were out of place in that bar and knew it. They felt awkward. As though everyone was staring at them. Everyone was. They spoke to each other in whispers and muffled giggles, looking back and forth to their touchscreens for distraction. Despite their obvious self-consciousness, there was a kind of excitement to their discomfort. All the Irish pubs they’d been in so far had been full of lively, confident men and women from around the globe. Well-dressed and comfortably hip adultescents that were closer to the present moment than any generation that had gone before. The iGeneration. This pub was not one of those places. This place was new. At least to them it was. This place was news.

“What can I do for you?” asks Philip, the barman.
“Could we have two whiskeys and one bottle of coke?”
“Sure. Ice?”
“A little.”

They had come looking for adventure and memories. They had found both. All the things that had happened, good or bad, could later be recounted as proof of having lived. Their hostel had been overbooked, and they’d had to share a room with two Japanese girls, who were equal parts fun and caution. They had kissed the Blarney Stone and lost bracelets in the process. Temporarily, at least. They had stepped up and down the Giant’s Causeway and had edged across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. They had seen more of Ireland than most Irish people had, or would in their lives. In less than a week. Now they were on a new mission: to get lost.

“Here you are. Enjoy,” says Philip, placing the drinks before them.

The Settle Inn was a typical small town pub. Its seats were covered in green upholstery, and the stools were maroon, or at least people remembered them being that way. The lights were low, and were nestled in tulip-shaped lampshades, coloured a light brown by years of the bulbs’ heat. Philip, barman and owner of the inn, longed for new clientele. He generally had a positive outlook on life, but of late had begun to succumb to despair. A kind of restlessness was growing in him. The bar. This bar he owned. That was the source of it.  It was this place that he blamed these seeds of sadness on. Nothing he had done since taking over The Settle Inn seemed to have had any effect. The place had a mind if its own, and no redecoration could lift the heaviness that clung to it. His favourite part of each day was the morning, alone, preparing for what lay ahead. He would unload the dishwasher, checking each glass as he went, all the while looking around at the empty room imagining what it could be like. He imagined a small stage near the doorway, where singers could sing, or poets could recite. He’d have it by the front window, so passers-by would see them and drop in to have a look at what was going on.  But his plans never came off. His quiz nights bombed. The older folk complained that the questions were too hard, while the younger ones just cheated with their phones. He stopped having them after the fourth one. None had been profitable. He’d brought in a digital jukebox to liven up the place. He’d filled it with classic jazz and blues albums, indie rock compilations, Hits of the Eighties, and a whole hell of a lot of Motown, but all that anyone ever played was The Pogues.

“Where are you girls from?” he asks.
“Australia,” says the brunette.
“Ah, very nice. What part?”
“Sydney,” says the blonde.

Though the locals held the out-of-towners in disdain, everybody warmed to the tourists. Some summer nights, the local to tourist ratio was an even split. Mid-July to late August there was a buzz about the town. These were the best nights of the year. His weary regulars would rise to life, as though awoken from a great slumber. They smiled. They winked. They advised. They warned. “Throw that guidebook away, will you. It’s nonsense,” they said, regardless of the fact that they’d never read a page of one of them. The locals rose to the tourist challenge, ticking all the boxes required for stereotypical Irish folk. Hearts became deeper. As did pockets. Glasses and voices were raised to the roof. They told tall tales, broke out in ballads, and the Irishness of their English grew stronger with every syllable and every sup.

Today was not one of those days. This was winter. The end of November. The little light that came in only served to highlight the dust floating in the air. Coins sat at the bar with his head so close to his pint you could swear they were talking to each other. Jim McCudden sat reading the form in the snug in the corner. Patrick Owens and Michael Comiskey were playing draughts by the fire. The only voice to be heard was that of the TV newscaster announcing more cuts, and the occasional ‘Shower of bastards’ response from one customer or another.

“Shydney, eh?” says Coins, lifting his head from his pint and turning towards them, while at the same time looking past them. As though really talking to someone else, someone who wasn’t there.
“Wazh there Chrizhtmas,” he says and pauses, his sentence hanging on the verge of being a question, cryptic and dreamlike, until he adds, “nineteen shixty-sheven.,” and pulls himself upright into his proper storytelling posture.
“Chrizhtmas. Hotashell…  May.” He pauses again, squinting. “Or maybe Lily?”

He began his story in the middle, which is the same place he began a lot of his sentences, and some of his words. The girls listened and nodded along, as though they understood. They couldn’t. Coins’ speech was slurred when sober, incoherent when tipsy, and incomprehensible when drunk. He had been a seaman. He’d seen every port, and had a story for each one. At least he used to. Or thought he used to. It was not just his speech that had slurred, but his mind too. Places had muddled into each other over the years. Of all the cities he had seen, events he had witnessed, women who had quickened his heartbeat, and mischief he had got mixed up in; only a few fragments remained. Misremembered girls walking renamed streets of cities in which they had never been, where whatever words they had once whispered in his ear had long since faded into sweet nothings.

“Fire… she is… broke… rise up… over all over… lasht thing I saw…”

Philip translated as best he could. Having gotten used to Coins’ slurred speech over the years, he was able to decipher most words. Though the narrative still escaped hm. Not that he cared. Philip had a love/hate affair with his clientele. Summer threw up a few joyous weekends every year, but for every one of those glass-raising, spirit-lifting, heart-warming evenings, there were a hundred down-in-the-dumps, dog-tired days. He was tired of talking about the weather. He was tired of the horse races he had to show on the telly. He was even tired of Fairytale of New York. But most of all, he was tired of his regulars. The auld fellas who clogged up his bar with their mumblings and their grumblings. They seemed to soak up the daylight. No matter how sunny the day outside, or how strong the light streaming through the window, these guys always made it seem dull and rainy. He dreamed of barring them all. Let them find another bar to depress. Why did they insist on bringing their doom and gloom into his bar? He knew his regulars put off potential customers. Potentially interesting customers. The locals weren’t fond of out-of-towners. At least once a day, a couple of fresh faces would step inside the door and glance around. Philip tried to usher them in with words of welcome, but it rarely paid off. The regulars would turn, look, snort, look again, and turn back around; and the potential customers after a quick consultation with each other, would make a dignified retreat.

Philip was aware that it was the cold stares the barflies give that drove them away. The stares and the silence. A bar with ten people in it, and not a word being spoken. But, what could he do? He’d love to kick the regulars out, but at the same time they were his livelihood. Every spare penny they have ends up in his pocket. He’d go under without them. Plus, they’d never done much to warrant being barred. Besides getting drunk, incidents in The Stumble Inn were rare and easily resolved, and he could hardly criticize them for getting drunk.

“Deep clear blue. Falling. Falling,” continues Coins. His eyes are glassy and red. The girls have gone back to their touchscreens, communicating more with the hemisphere they’re from than the one they are in. Coins has lost his audience, but he goes on nonetheless. Philip slices lemons. Less listening than observing. He has heard them all anyway. And made sense of none.

“One two kangaroo. One two kangaroo,” blurts Coins, as a wet laugh breaks out on his face, down through his nose and out the side of his mouth.

Coins’ gift of the gab had long since waned from what it was. It wasn’t just that his words were incoherent. Behind the words themselves, the story itself had been eroded. Where once he would embellish his tales with fanciful untruths and colourful exaggerations, now he merely tried to tell the dull truth, and rarely got even that. A combination of senility and self-regulation had whittled away the rich tapestries of bullshit that he once wove.  What might have been seen as bawdy and bold in a man of younger years was considered lewd and lecherous in someone of his age. His cheeky charm had crept towards a vile vulgarity. His pausing, which used to be for effect, was now solely for the purpose of recollecting his train-wreck of thought. His catalogue of memories, which used to come to mind so vividly, eluded him in his ageing. The details grew cloudy and distant: names of places, and of faces; causes and effects; the reason and the rhyme; the season and the time. These things hid in the dusty cobwebs of his memory, and he could not go on till everything had become clear. And it rarely did. Neither the truth nor the lies coming to mind. Nothing but the grey between the two.

“Six feet six teeth I says,” he says, as the bar telephone rings.
“I’d love to stay and translate,” Philip says quietly to the girls, “but I don’t want to ruin the ending.” They laugh politely.
“In all the other bars on this street, there’s two more like him, and at least one worse,” he adds, picking up the receiver.

The girls returned to composing posts on their phones, so friends and family back in Sydney knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. They had wanted to find the real Ireland, the one off the tourist trail. As did everyone else. And they had duly found it and subsequently ignored it. They tried to capture it in texts, tweets, photos, and video; so that in the future they will be able to look back on the time that they had almost been here. They were here and yet not here. These present moments would become their future pasts. And unfortunately, they knew this.

Philip hung up the phone, and started wiping down the bar.

“Where else are you girls planning to get to?” he asks.
“Not sure. Any suggestions?” asks the blonde.
“Anywhere but here,” he says jokingly, but in his heart he meant it.

He was dreaming of the bar he could have had. In a city far away, where the Irish were the tourists, and the locals were vibrant and loud. Where stories were never told twice. Where people spoke in truths, and not just in gossip, rumours, and hearsay. Where folk danced on matted verandas out the front no matter how old they were. Where there was no jukebox because the customers themselves were made of music.

“Pull uz another, Phil,” says Coins, pushing his glass away from him.

Coins, too, was lost to another world. To faraway times rather than faraway places. He thought not of what he lived through or of what he had seen, but of the times when he was still able to remember what he had lived through and could reconstruct in words what of the world he had seen. Times when he could hold court with just the tone of his voice. When he could build suspense, cloak an audience in intrigue and mystery with the will of his tongue, or deliver a punchline to an enraptured bar. No one could hold a candle to him when it came to tales of adventure or of misadventure. But his wit and wisdom was not what it once was. No sooner would he begin his tale than it would start to unravel. He had told them so many times he was no longer sure of which parts he had made up, or of which he had left out. He had sifted fiction from fact and back again so often that he could no longer tell the difference.

“There you go.” Philip placed the pint down on the beermat in front of him, picking up the change that Coins had counted out.

At the far end of the bar Jim McCudden rose from his seat in the snug and wandered across the room to the jukebox in the opposite corner. He put his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a pile of coins. He picked through them in his palm, dropped a couple in the slot, and returned to his seat. And soon after, once again, it was Christmas Eve, babe; in the drunk tank.

Stairs

January 23, 2012

Who will wake and when
I wonder
From our slumber, from our dreams?
To find our pasts
Distilled, unmasked
While underneath their beams

Where questions we had never asked
Played out behind our eyes
Of memories of memories
Of long-forgotten lies

Who will wake and when
I wonder
In sheets of sweat and tears
For further future failures
And unforgiving fears

Not that we will remember
Nor on our hearts impressed
No lessons learned
No stones unturned
No fires in our breasts

We will fumble in the embers
For the flames in which we burned
Away the dark
For fleeting sparks
Of spirits we have spurned

Who will wake and when
I wonder
As I while away the hours
With distant sun
Insistent on
A love that wasn’t ours

As I slip towards sleep
The half-light creeps
The shadows slowly stray
Your night recedes
Into the deeds
And duties of the day

We will pass upon the stairways
In sacred silent shells
For any word
Expressed or heard
Would shatter both our spells

Who will wake and when
I wonder
When the webs are whisked away?
Whose whispers will we welcome?
Whose hearts will we betray?

I meet you on the landing
Where our two storeys cross
You blush, I yawn
My dusk, your dawn
In mourning, at a loss

Who will wake and when
I wonder
In which world will we be free?
Will I wake once more in darkness
Or will the dark be waked in me?

Tongues

May 1, 2011

It was her accent that first drew me to her. From across the room. Warm and hard to place. Echoes turning heads away from where the sound had come. Disguising their source. Her language seemed to belong to no place. Or no time. Or both.

I could hear her from the opposite wall, though it was not to me she was talking. Still, I hung on her every word. I could not take my eyes off them. I watched her re-invent each one and rhyme them all off with the next; weaving them around each other like ribbons. She strung me out: with her words. The way she glided between the sentences, arching up her shoulders, intoning her lines with form, syllables sliding down her forearms to her wrists and out through her fingers in faultless flowing sweeps. Her words never seemed to end, but to trail off and hang in the air, like plumes left to fade before your eyes. And I knew right then.

She is what I imagine music must be. Something beyond my comprehension. The drop of a key sending shivers up the spine. The faintest flicker quickening the pulse. The slightest pause; between notes: a rush of anticipation. It seems beyond me: all this harmony of co-ordination and communication.

I have never heard a sound in my life. Not a noise. Not a note. Nor a bang. Not even silence. I was born this way. But, what of it? What of Bach or of Beethoven? Of The Beatles or The Beach Boys? Stravinsky, Strauss, The Streets or The Strokes? I can live in their ignorance. And have no grievance. I can forego all the pleasures of melody and song without a trace of loss or envy.

Though no power of description will ever allow me to understand what it is that people are enabled to feel by the mysteriousness of music; when they are swept up in the movement of a symphony, or lost in the chorus of the latest summer anthem; nor could I ever explain to you, so that you too could hear, what it is that I hear when I am listening to her hands.

Hands

December 10, 2010

I have often wondered why we have friends. What they are for. I have very rarely had a conversation on any topic with one of my close friends which was as pleasant or as enjoyable as one I have had with a total stranger. In all honesty, when it comes to a discussion on almost any subject matter, the only difference between having it with a friend than with a stranger is that the appropriate rules of manners, respect, and tolerance are no longer required. And this can hardly be construed as a benefit.  Not to mention the fact that you have most probably heard and can already predict what your friend is going to say in most instances. And this only increases your own impatience, leading you to your own infuriation, which is exactly how your partner in conversation had known you would react. So all your conversations merely repeat themselves endlessly with only the levels of infuriation ever really varying. Going upwards obviously.

I had a conversation with a guy on a train not two weeks ago. Adam was his name. For three hours we talked. On a broad range of subjects. We exchanged political, cultural, and religious opinions; applauded the service on the train; philosophised about sports and the modern game; gave inaccurate portrayals of our personal lives, in which we had never been at fault; waxed lyrical about passions for which we had really only a passing fancy; passed off things we had just read earlier that day as our own long-standing positions; and god only knows what else we talked about in between. All in all, it was a most delightful conversation. Regardless of what topic we stumbled upon to. Nothing he said aggravated me no matter how much I disagreed with him or saw through him, as he was gentlemanly enough to choose to pretend to not see through me either. And I told him as he rose to depart at Midleton that I had ‘thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today’, which I had. And he concurred wholeheartedly. We shook hands firmly and he stepped off the train onto the platform. ‘What a fine man that was!’ I thought to myself. ‘Hopefully I will never run into him again.’

But friends are friends, and for reasons so far never satisfactorily explained to me; we are not permitted to dump them like you can a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Nor are you even able to ignore them like a stranger in the street. Somehow you end up being responsible for them. Despite sharing neither blood nor any other internal fluids with them. This seems to me like quite an unfair arrangement. They say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I remain unconvinced.

There were five of us in our poker group: myself, Ciaràn, Ricardo, Pavel, and Colm. Long-time friends. All guys. All met in college. Our poker meetings were always of a lighted-hearted fashion. Joking and jesting. Jibing and besting. The usual small-talk and gentlemanly gossip was also par for the course. We were a jovial bunch of lads by nature. At least most of the time. Especially at the beginning of the game. Though less so at the end. We tended to descend away from our naturally peaceable characters towards much more suspicious and resentful individuals as the game went on. If our games could be charted on a line graph, according to the categories of joviality and competitiveness, the graph would look like a perfect X. Joviality going downwards obviously.

I don’t remember when we first started having our poker evenings. I only really remember when I started winning real money. Before that, poker was the secondary activity. It was always ‘meeting up and (also) playing poker’. In that order of importance. The cards used not be a priority. Like scratching your balls, and watching TV.  But at some hard-to-define point the roles most definitely got reversed. The meeting/poker thing that is. As opposed to the balls thing, which as we are all well aware, could never be bettered.

Our early poker games were just for small change. No notes. Just whatever coins you could cobble together. Even still, there were continual, heated arguments about the rules when we played. It seemed it was never quite certain which version we were playing. Pavel’s aunt seemed to have brought him up playing some kind of communist version of poker whereby everyone’s bet had equal value regardless of how much money you put in. It was to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor he said. Ricardo was defiant that in Brazil certain cards were actually certain other cards at certain times known only to him. We never understood this ourselves. Ciaràn tended to deal the cards at least twice. He would miscount his deal more often than not, and insist the whole hand be re-dealt. Unless he had good cards. In which case, he would forget his “rule”, and agree to let it slide this time so as not to cause further “unnecessary inconvenience” to anyone. And Colm didn’t know any of the rules. And I’m still not sure he fully does.

Finally, the bickering and constant disputes got too much for someone – Colm, I think! – and he decided to get a copy of the official poker rules so as to put an end to our ceaseless arguing. It was a very wise decision. As we pored over the rulebook, we saw that we had all been all right all along all the time. We were all able to immediately recall situations where we had been arguing one of the points that we now had proof was part of official play. Or we remembered times when we had been so insistent that a particular aspect of play was true, and were now able to locate certain variants on the game where what we had been saying was in fact, acceptable. We each found justifications for each and every of our previous claims throughout the rulebook, and everyone was kind enough to agree to remember that things that had never happened had happened, and that things that hadn’t happened had; which was really very nice of all of us: to show our support in wilfully misremembering each other’s past actions, converting them into more righteous and justifiable acts. And this, as I have already suggested, is really what I suspect friends are for.

Nonetheless, we did at least learn the rules and stick by them. It brought about a monumental reduction in disagreements, and made our evenings a great deal pleasanter. We also bought playing chips. And a green felt for the table. We set limits on how much we would play with. Initially, it was €5 each. So the total pot was €25. Our poker evenings continued merrily in this way for quite a while, and only red wine spilled on clothes or the occasional poker or girl related fist-fight ever dampened our spirits. All things considered, we had an extremely contented year or so of poker. Sometimes we never even finished the game, and just ended up chewing the proverbial cud into the wee hours, with the overall pot left unclaimed, and not a one of us ever even thought so much as to steal it. Or in the event that the over-consumption of alcohol discontinued someone’s ability to play, never in our lives would we have dreamed of taking advantage of that passed-out opponent’s remaining money. For we were friends, and that’s what mattered. It was a nice year. Occasionally quarrelsome. But on the whole, it was very, very nice.

Over time though, the whole meeting-up aspect of cards was demoted to mere necessity. Things gradually grew more serious. And when this honeymoon period had begun to grow tiresome, the stakes were doubled to make things “more interesting”, which it did. Though it only stayed at that new level for 3 or 4 games. One evening, after we had finished, Pavel suggested raising the stakes even higher, so that the maximum total pot was €100. I wholeheartedly seconded this idea. Pavel had just lost out on the final hand when we went all-in; so while the other guys felt like they had lost a tenner, Pavel felt like he had lost the whole €50 and clearly felt the urge to recoup his losses at our following game. I also thought that raising the stakes was a great idea at the time, as I had just won that particular pot, and had suddenly become annoyed that I had only won €50, when I could have won twice as much if we had only raised the stakes a week earlier.

Ciaràn and Ricardo were less enthusiastic, and were both relieved that they had only lost €10. Colm, who was drunk and comatose by the end of the game, had nothing pertinent to say on the matter. In fact, he was drunk by the beginning of the game too. Kept shouting ‘yes’ or ‘crap’ when he looked at his cards. And lost all his money quite early in the game when he temporarily confused his interior monologue and out-loud voice; was quite clearly heard saying that he was about to “bluff” the next hand; and went all-in on a pair of hearts. What conversation he thought he had been making to us during this hand remains unknown, except possibly to Colm’s own cerebral dump. But probably not.

So the vote was split. Pavel and I were in favour. Ciaràn and Ricardo: against. Colm: asleep. Pavel was first to try to rouse him and force him to cast his vote. And wishing to resolve the matter promptly, simply tried to extract an immediate response from him.  ‘HeyColmDyathinkweshudraisethepotuptoahundredquidfornxtweek?Yeah?Whadoyoureckon?Weshould?Yeah?’ Colm looked up at him, and after presumably thinking it over very briefly so as to consider both arguments, emitted a low, but most definitely audible ‘yeah’, and then returned his eyes to their previously closed position.

‘Well, that’s that decided’, we said, and turned to pick up our coats to leave. But the boys weren’t having any of this. Ricardo accused us of manipulating our dear friend, and asking “leading questions” – whatever that means, some weird Portuguese mistranslation no doubt – which clearly wasn’t the case, and greatly offended both of our natures. We had merely wished for the decision to be made as quickly as was possible we explained. Colm had work in the morning and we thought it best not to disturb him more than necessary, as he would need to be fully alert for the day which lay ahead of him. But, they claimed we were being “blatantly and knowingly deceitful”, and insisted on re-clarifying Colm’s “actual answer”. So now it was their turn to wake Colm up and again extract his opinion.

Ciaràn shook him violently at first, and then held him very steadily by the shoulders, and keeping direct contact with Colm’s bleary, glassy, newly-reddened eyes asked him, “Do you? Colm! Look at me. Do you think? Colm, COLM! Stay with me. Do you think we should raise the pot? The pot? Colm. No, I don’t have any pot. No. No, I don’t. I don’t want any pot. The pot, for chrissakes. The amount of money we bet. Get it? The pot. Do you think we should raise the pot to 100 euro? COLM, COLM!!! Come back to me. Do you think we should raise the pot to 100 euro for next week’s game? What do you think? Huh? What do you think? Do you want the pot to be raised?’ There was a pause. His mouth opened to speak, but got closed up again before he could speak by a bit of an unexpected burp, which also contained a bit of unexpected vomit, which slipped out over his teeth and down onto his chin. He recomposed himself somewhat, and took stock of his environment. He looked about himself, admittedly in a slightly dazed fashion, not unlike an interrogatee after a 4 day, no-camera, no-lawyer, post-Patriot Act, physical questioning. And then he answered in his usual Irish drool/accent. ‘Whatever’, he said. And his face collapsed back down onto the table creating a loud face-meets-table type sound.

‘There,’ said Pavel and I. ‘So it’s settled.’

‘No, it’s not settled!’ Ricardo railed with put-on outrage. ‘He said, “whatever”, which means he doesn’t care. It means he has no opinion!’

‘Don’t be silly,’ I countered. ‘It means we can raise the pot because he doesn’t mind.’

’It means he doesn’t mind if we do raise it, but equally he doesn’t mind if we don’t,’ argued Ciaràn.

This debate went back and forth for a short period. Meanwhile, Colm had slipped off the table and was lying on the floor with a bloody nose. We think this was from when his face fell onto the table, but it may have been from when his body fell onto the tiles. He was clearly in even less of a position to convey his thoughts on the issue than he had been the previous two times, and we realised it was best to settle the issue by some other means.

So we decided to toss a coin. The atmosphere of the room was again tense with competitiveness. I threw the coin up in the air. Pavel said ‘heads’. Ricardo said ‘tails’. And Ciaràn said ‘heads’. And it was tails.
‘Yes!’ exclaimed Ricardo. ‘We’re not raising the stakes.’
‘But Ciaran lost the coin-toss,’ I retorted.
‘Yeah, but I didn’t,’ said Ricardo.

‘But you can’t both play! You can’t both call opposite sides of the coin and still be on the same side of the argument!’

As anyone in our predicament would, neither Pavel nor I were willing to accept that they had won fairly, and insisted on a re-toss. So we agreed to throw it up again. This time, we made it clear who was going to call sides. Ricardo would toss. I would oversee his execution of it. Pavel and Ciaran would call sides. Ricardo picked a coin out of his pocket, tossed it in the air, caught it in his right hand and slapped it on the back of his left. Pavel called tails. Ciaran called heads. Ricardo lifted his hand to reveal the coin.

‘It’s heads,’ he declared. ‘We win. You can’t disagree this time.’
We looked at his hand.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘It’s a real,’ he said.
‘A what?’
‘A Brazilian ‘real’. It’s our currency.’
‘How do you know which side is heads?’ we asked simultaneously. Even Ciaràn who was supposed to be on Ricardo’s side seemed uncertain.
‘I’m telling you. This side is heads.’ He assured us.
I remained unconvinced. We picked it up and studied it closely.

One side had the coin’s value, but it also had the year it was minted. The other had a design, the word ‘Brasil’, but no number saying how much it was worth. This was all very new to us. For a while, we became quite interested in this coin, the relative value in the currency compared to the euro, and current average wages in Brazil. We became distracted from our task. We learned of the huge collapse in the value of the ‘real’ in 2002, before our conversation led into a lengthy discussion on the scruples (or lack of them) of the proponents of free market capitalism, the global repercussions of its cavalier practices, and the lack of accountability or transparency currently required in the world of modern globalisation. Also, Pavel had a highly amusing story, which we had never heard him tell before, of a coin that was in his family that had taken a bullet which would have hit his great-grandfather’s scrotum, but had hit the coin instead, and thereby prevented the discontinuation of his lineage. A coin, without which, Pavel himself wouldn’t be here today. And we all enthusiastically chose to believe as fact the story that Pavel had chosen to enthusiastically believe as fact. In short, we momentarily forgot our differences and were once more returned to our good and companionable selves.

Until we heard what could only have been the sound of escaping wee coming from the unconscious sleeping, bleeding, dearest friend of ours lying on the tiles. And turning to look down at him, we saw his blue jeans, turn from a light azure, through turquoise, and on to something near indigo. This transformation beginning around the crotch, but via the miracle of capillary action managed to creep itself all the way down to his socks, into his shoes, and out onto the floor. We watched this happen with detached concern or concerned detachment. I’m not sure which would be a more accurate description. Fortunately it was his house. In truth, we always played at his house for precisely this reason. And in these types of situation, it was unanimously agreed upon that our leaving, would save both his potential embarrassment and our potential guilt.

So we went back to the original euro. We tossed it one more time, with much less tension in the air than had previously been there, and left; with Colm asleep on the floor covered in parts of himself which were supposed to be on the inside of him, but weren’t. We had won the coin-toss. We were raising the stakes to €100.

But it didn’t stop there. It was €100 for a few more games. And then it became €25 each to play for a pot of €125. We began taking it even more seriously. Getting to known the finer points of play. Studying each other’s habits. Learning tactics and gauging probabilities. Becoming fuller, better players. More professional. More ruthless. More like men.

And each time someone won, or nearly won, or just lost, or nearly lost, or won twice in a row, or nearly won twice in a row, or if someone failed to win on many consecutive occasions, or almost any permutation thereof: someone would suggest we raise the stakes. We would be divided in our opinions. Forming alliances. Vying for Colm’s vote – he never seemed to have an opinion. We’d argue. Sometimes, we’d agree to higher stakes. Sometimes, we’d keep them the same. But eventually, the stakes would be changed. Always upwards, obviously.

And before we knew it, quicker than it seemed possible, it was €200 in: €1,000 for the winner. We arrived at Colm’s house for the first game at these stakes. We were unusually punctual. Furthermore, Colm was unusually sober – one can only assume that the changing nature of our evenings had finally dawned on him. We retained the small-talk, but only as a matter of course. Our verbal tos and fros were running on automatic. We were content to merely pay lip service to the pre-poker ritual that we had cultivated in the previous two years. We dispensed with the pleasantries after a reasonably appropriate time had passed, so that nobody could have any grounds for complaining that we no longer cared for one another; and then we got down to business.

The first few hands were of little note; each man showing restraint in the early stages. There were even some remnants of non-game-related conversation, which I personally frowned upon, but was more than willing to tolerate. Drinks were few. Even Colm managed to restrain himself to a controllable tipsiness. And like this, the night edged onwards. By midnight we were all still in the game, and there was barely even a discernable leader as we had all won our share of good hands. Less than an hour after this, things had changed significantly.

Ciaràn was first out. His funds had begun to dwindle and he had had to take a gamble on a high straight, but lost out to a flush from me. He’d been particularly unlucky. He’d had a run of nothing hands, and had been caught out on a couple of pretty convincing bluffs. What really compounded his bad luck was the fact that, by looking through a glass of water which Ricardo had carelessly misplaced, I could; via the refraction of light; see his cards whenever he glanced at them. Though he briefly cursed his ill-fortune in an un-re-printable manner after losing, he was otherwise, nothing but gracious in defeat. He had played well, and there was nothing for him to be ashamed of.

Colm went out after him. In his (relative) sobriety, it seemed Colm was too cautious a player to ever have had a real chance. His erratic drunken tactics – or lack of them – had meant that he had won on many previous occasions, as his manner of play was highly illogical, and therefore completely unpredictable. It was very hard to read the thoughts of such an impulsive drunkard; especially the thoughts of someone we weren’t sure really understood the rules of play. His pile of chips slowly diminished, and he never took enough of a risk to get himself back into the game. His game ended with a whimper, though he himself appeared a tad relieved that he was now able to relinquish his restraint and finally relax. “Well, I had a good run of it there for a while,” he said, as he grabbed the (still hall-full!) whiskey bottle and took a great big gulp straight from the neck.

Pavel was next to go. I think none of us ever enjoyed when Pavel won. His post-victory smugness was an offense to the game itself. Pavel only ever won through sheer chance; unlike the commendable victories which Ricardo and I could command. He never succeeded through skill or guile like we did, but only through a continual run of beginner’s luck. Though, not this time. This time, his luck conspired against him. His inability to conceal his confidence in his cards meant that he won too little when his hands were good, and lost too much when his hands were bad. To add to his woes, the remaining players seemed unwilling to gamble against each other, appearing to take it in turns in trying to run him out of the game. And now he was out. Pavel had given it his all, and ought to have been proud of his performance; instead of being quite as vocally resentful as he was. He proceeded to express his dissatisfaction in a foul-mouthed and wholly unwarranted tirade, primarily at Ricardo and me, both of whom stoically bore the brunt of his vitriol, as we should have, as he is our friend, and we both understood that ‘these things happen’. His outburst gradually gave way to its very opposition: a stone-cold silence, which we deemed much more appropriate. We then resumed our game.

So it was down to two. Ricardo and I. Our stacks were pretty much even. He had neither as much as I, nor had I as little as him. Ciaràn dealt. A few tentative hands passed with no demonstrable advantage being gained. Until, on the fourth hand, the flop showed up a jack of hearts, a queen of hearts, and an ace of clubs. I had a jack of clubs and a queen of diamonds. Two pair. I looked at Ricardo. His face was devoid of emotion. As it always was. I had always found his calm demeanour most irritating, but never quite to the same extent as I disliked it just then. There was something recognisably inhumane about his expressionlessness or his calm. At that moment, I could not comprehend the existence of such a person. Had he no compassion for his fellow man? Did he not know how much this game meant? Not the money. Well, not just the money. But, the pride! The victory! The vindication! Why was this man trying so blatantly to come between me and what was rightly mine? I had toiled so hard to get myself into this position, and now I was sat face to face with this implacable automaton, devoid of both empathy and pity. Thus, I resolved, that for the sake of all that was good in the world; all that was just and right and fair; for all the underdogs of the world who’d never had a chance, who’d been trodden on by the cruelty and inhumanity of society; that I would beat this man! For them; but mainly for me; I would win!

The “turn” was another queen. This time: of diamonds. I had a full house.  I looked at Ricardo. He was contorting his mouth as he weighed up his options. I knew I had him. He looked over at me in thought. Then in one slow movement, with both hands, he pushed all his chips into the middle of the table. He stared back at me blankly. ‘All-in’ he said. My heart stopped. Then it raced. The blood coursed through me. I glanced again at my cards. Just to be sure. And somehow I managed to make the words ‘All-in’ come out of my mouth too. I added my chips to his and sat back to await the final card.

I looked about me. Only Colm seemed in any way interested in the result. He sat there, eyes wide, drinking the least “bloody” Bloody Mary I have ever seen. Pavel seemed unmoved and unmoving; his arms folded across his chest, a steely expression of contempt, disgust, and jealousy across his face. Ciaràn looked resolutely bored; his chin resting on his fist resting on the table; until he laboriously lowered his arm and drew it towards the fifth card to turn it over.

Ciaràn delicately turned over the river. It was the ten of hearts. My own heart was in my mouth. The game had to be mine! Didn’t it? It was surely mine. How could he beat me?  Could he beat me? Please tell me it’s mine. Oh god, to whom I have never before turned or ever will call upon after, I beseech thee, let me win! Lord of mercy, for the love of all the suffering of this unholy planet, let me have this game!

Ricardo, as calmly as ever, turned over his cards. As did I, though not quite as calmly. There was the pregnantest of pauses as we discerned whose hand had won. And then it was over.

‘Wo!’ said Colm. ‘They were close hands.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘They were.’
‘You can say that again,’ added Ricardo.

Ricardo and I shook hands, and then we all started gathering up what was ours, moving to put our glasses in the dishwasher, grabbing our coats, and what not.

‘Hey guys, what are youse doing?’ Colm asked in bewilderment. ‘Where are you going?’

‘We’re going home,’ we told him.
‘But it’s only just after one,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t anyone want to stay for a drink? Doesn’t anyone wanna stay and just talk for a while? ’

But none of us did.

Ghouls

November 1, 2010
In the dark, the dreams will merge
With screams our pasts have failed to purge
And waking will the mist disperse?
Will words in verse dispel the curse?
For Sunday’s light has lost its hue
And left bereft the children who
Escaped their fates a time too brief
Return November’s fallen leaf